Islamic history books, biographies and reports narrate that in the early stages of the call in Mecca, and after some of his followers had migrated to Abyssinia and he saw that the Quraysh were avoiding him, and that he was left with only a small group of his companions, the Prophet suffered from a feeling of loneliness, so that he expressed regretfully: “if only this revelation that is alienating them from me were not occurring”.


IT IS ALSO NARRATED that he recited the Sūrat al-Najm in the Sacred Mosque before the leaders of Quraysh, along with some of his followers who were praying alongside him. And when he reached the passage that says:

Have you then thought upon al-Lāt and al-‘Uzza, and Manāt, the third, the last?[1]

it is reported how he repeated the phrase:

Those gharānīq (lofty cranes)[2], their intercession is to be hoped for.

This had a wide-ranging impact, since the Quraysh then declared their satisfaction with Muḥammad and with these verses he had recited, saying:

Yes; we have always known that God gives life and death, and that He creates and provides sustenance, and as for these, they make intercession with Him for us; wherefore, since you have conceded them a portion, we are content to follow you.

Al-Ṭabarī here mentions that:

the believers believed in what their Prophet was granted from their Lord … When he ended in prostration, the Muslims prostrated along with their Prophet, believing what he brought and following his command. The polytheists and others also prostrated when they thus heard their gods addressed, so that there were no Muslims or disbelievers in the mosque who did not prostrate. [3]

Al-Bukhārī, on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbās, narrated that there was one man who did not prostrate due to his old age and the weakness of his bones:

but except for a man whom I saw taking a handful of dust and prostrating on it.[4]

Al-Wāqidī gives a name to this man:

All of the polytheists prostrated, except for al-Walīd ibn al-Mughīra, who took dust from the ground and raised it to his face.

It is well known that al-Walīd was one of the most severe opponents of the Prophet, as he was among the wealthy, noble elite of Mecca. His standpoint here clearly needs to be reflected upon.

The narrations continue by saying that this well-known tale and the hadith of the gharānīq in the Islamic heritage was widely reported, so that it reached the ears of the Muslim migrants with the Abyssinian Negus. At which point they ended their exile, choosing to return since the reason for their exile was gone. However on their way back they met with a convoy of Kināna. They told them that the Prophet mentioned the intercessors of Quraysh positively, so the Quraysh followed him, to the point of praying what he prayed, but that he had then repudiated it, and so they turned back to being hostile to him.  For after he had said

Have you then thought upon al-Lāt and al-‘Uzza, and Manāt, the third, the last? Those gharānīq (lofty cranes), their intercession is to be hoped for,

he went on to say that Gabriel had come and remonstrated with him saying:

What have you done? You have recited to people what I did not bring to you from God Almighty, and said what He did not say.”

Following which the Prophet recited:

Have you then thought upon al-Lāt and al-‘Uzza, and Manāt, the third, the last? What! for you the males and for Him the females! This indeed is an unjust division![5]

Ancient and modern commentators on the hadith of the cranes went on to deny it and deplore it. A modern scholar, Dr. Shaʽbān Muḥammad Ismāʽīl argues that “this story is not proven, neither from the point of view of its transmission, nor from the point of view of rationality.”[6] Among the ancient commentators on this was Abū Jaʽfar al-Naḥḥās, who was appalled by this issue and declared that it was “a terrible hadith with grave portent.”[7] The editor of his book advanced an entirely logical explanation, which was that

if we permitted that, the trust in the prophets would disappear, and deviants would have found a way to cast doubt on the faith. [8]

He then added Al-Wāqidī’s passage:

…until Gabriel came down and, on hearing the Prophet’s recital, said to him: ‘what I brought down to you and what God said was: “And if We had not made you wholly firm you might almost have inclined unto them a little”.’ [9]

This verse, you might almost have inclined unto them a little was part of the admonishment by God Almighty of His honorable Prophet contained in these two verses:

And surely they had purposed to turn you away from that which We have revealed to you, that you should forge against Us other than that, and then they would certainly have taken you for a friend. And if We had not made you wholly firm you might almost have inclined unto them a little.[10]

Then we find a Qur’ānic justification for what happened – one in which there is no room for confusion or ambiguity – explaining that Satan (‘may God curse him’) seized the opportunity of the Prophet’s wish to be close to his people, and intervened in the revelation at the moment he was receiving it, and delivered those terrible verses to him. The Almighty then abrogated them with correct verses. And God Almighty teaches us that this is something that is neither new nor strange: Satan used to do this with any one of the honorable prophets and messengers, if any of them had the same or similar wish. This eloquent explanation appears in the Almighty’s revelation:

And We did not send before you any messenger or prophet, but when he desired, the Shaytan made a suggestion respecting his desire; but Allah annuls that which the Shaytan casts, then does Allah establish His communications, and Allah is Knowing, Wise.[11]

Alarmed by this matter, Abū Jaʽfar al-Naḥḥās commented on these verses, confirming that even if the hadith of the cranes had indeed taken place, and that Satan had found his opportunity when the Prophet had made such a wish, the Prophet did not actually utter what Satan cast – or alternatively, as he says:

the likelihood is this: Satan cast into the midst of the Prophet’s recitation (may God’s prayers and peace be upon him), either one of the jinn demons – and it is known from ancient sources that Satan used to appear often during the time of the Prophet (may God’s prayers and peace be upon him) – and so he cast this demon right in the middle of the recitation by the Prophet, (may God’s prayers and peace be upon him), without the Prophet (may God’s prayers and peace be upon him) actually himself uttering it.[12]

He possibly derived his argumentation for that from what appears in other Qur’ānic verses that say, for instance:

So when you read the Qur’an, seek refuge in Allah from the accursed Satan, Surely he has no authority over those who believe and rely on their Lord. His power is only over those who make a friend of him, and those who ascribe partners unto Him (Allah). [13]

This was the case with the hadith of the cranes, and the clarifications given in the Noble Qur’ān for what happened. But what concerns us, and falls within the framework of our research (and we are not dealing here with investigating unseen matters of religious faith which has an arena and champions all to itself) is how to understand the reality behind this event, and the circumstances that surrounded it.

What concerns us is how to understand the reality behind this event

We should try to understand how the point at issue was the ‘trial for those in whose hearts is a disease’[14], and how the hearts of others were hardened, so they were tested and set apart. By looking at that period in time and place, we see that there were still no real barriers between the Prophet and the general people, although barriers indeed came to be set up – and from the point of view of the polytheists, these were fundamental, decisive barriers. It is known that the Quraysh did not differ with the Chosen One about the primary doctrinal element of his call – the belief in one God who gives life and death, who creates and provides – and we know this from the Holy Qur’an itself, which testified to it in a number of verses, among which:

And if you ask them, Who created the heavens and the earth and made the sun and the moon subservient, they will certainly say, Allah. Whence are they then turned away?[15]

Say: Who is the Lord of the seven heavens and the Lord of the mighty dominion? They will say, “(They belong) to Allah.” Say: “Will ye not then keep duty (unto Him)?[16]

And there are many other verses to the same effect. But the point of difference, the major barrier, stemmed from the Prophet’s demand to drop the prayer for the intercession of the divinities of the Arabs.  

Thus, the meaning of Muhammad’s abolishing of the intercessors was to remove the last barrier that was fragmenting the tribes, and to displace the powerful symbol that was identified with the aristocratic élite, not to mention the view of this élite towards the Prophet. These suspected that he sought to cancel out the tribal intercessors in order that he, Muḥammad, could become the sole master of all the tribes and that the power of intercession be granted to him alone as possessor of the relationship with God, as opposed to the intercessors, or the soothsayers, or the merchants. That is, that Muḥammad was to be made the definitive and final decision-maker who spoke in God’s name, by their testifying that he was the Messenger of God. This threatened to destroy all their commercial interests.

In light of this, we can read the hadith of the cranes in another way. With the emigration of his followers to Abyssinia, with the harshness and bitterness of his circumstances – the alienation from his kin and the psychological effect that all this inevitably had on the Prophet – he expressed his regret, and Satan intervened, and he said what he said. As a result the Quraysh followed him, especially their élite present at that moment in the sanctuary, because the issue now did not affect their interests. They therefore prostrated and prayed alongside the Prophet. This is the ‘sedition’ indicated by the Qur’ānic verses:

That He may make the suggestions thrown in by Satan, but a trial for those in whose hearts is a disease and who are hardened of heart: verily the wrong-doers are in a schism far (from the Truth).[17]

‘Hearts’ at that time stood for ‘minds’, that is, those who do not understand and do not realize the far-reaching purpose of the Prophet’s call, a purpose which the wiser among them had already discerned even though they did not believe in the faith. They would benefit from this purpose, and they thus explained it to their peers. We can feel this in  what ‘Utba ibn Rabīʽa said to them after he met the Prophet and understood the major purposes of the call. There is no doubt that ‘Utba ibn Rabīʽa, one of the high-ranking aristocrats, realized these great dimensions of the call as something that was aimed at uniting them all in one great state that could compete with the Romans and the Persians, but without harming their commercial interests. And this in fact what happened.

A sincere revelation that unambiguously indicates that it was issued by a conscious, willing actor.

Indeed, after the victory of the call, these interests were empowered, strengthened, and supported. After the conquest of Mecca the Prophet not only guaranteed the Meccans their position among the Arabs, but also guaranteed the Quraysh and its leadership their leading position in Islam. Anyone looking at the conquest of Mecca with a little clarity of vision soon discovers that the conquest of Mecca was not a defeat for Quraysh, a fact we can gauge by the grumblings of the Anṣār.[18]  The Prophet himself worked to perpetuate the existing social structure through awarding gifts and fiefdoms, and the Revelation supported this by consecrating individual ownership:

And Allah hath favoured some of you above others in provision.[19]

Rather, he presented a clear rationalization for class inequality, as in the Qur’ān’s statement:

Allah coineth a similitude: (on the one hand) a (mere) chattel slave, who hath control of nothing, and (on the other hand) one on whom we have bestowed a fair provision from Us, and he spendeth thereof secretly and openly. Are they equal? Praise be to Allah! But most of them know not. [20]

This is not to mention referring the secret of class inequality to divine discretion, in God’s statement:  

And He it is Who has made you successors in the land and raised some of you above others by (various) grades, that He might try you by what He has given you; surely your Lord is quick to requite (evil), and He is most surely the Forgiving, the Merciful.[21]

Clearly the matter in this sense did not occur to the minds of the Meccan aristocrats at the time of first call of Islam to the oppressed. This accounts for their ‘sedition’ in the hadith of the cranes. However, the tensions raised among some of the Muslims as a result of what Satan cast in, and thus the weakening of their morale, had to be followed by a quick response through clarifying the role of Satan in what had happened.

This was also a test for the oppressed Muslims to show the extent of their obedience, and how readily they acceded to it, in the way that Ismail was ready to carry out his slaughter in obedience to the divine command. What is more, the abrogation of what Satan cast into the Revelation was a procedural matter resolving, on the one side the considerations of tribal parties, and on the other side the unity that was being striven for. The parties were, on one side the people of Mecca, and on the other side the Prophet, while the tools for this debate were the intercessors, Satan, and the words of God represented in a Revelation – not in the sense of an inspiration, or an idea or an obsession, but a sincere revelation that played a role rich in significance, and one that unambiguously indicates that it was issued by a conscious, willing actor.

The Revelation here was an emotional act characterized by a full understanding and awareness to secure what took place, in a way that answered to what was demanded in accordance with the conditions and requirements of the facts on the ground. He was aware of the nature of the phase he was living through at the time, and the nature of the next stage and the changes that would follow.

[1] Qur’ān LIII (al-Najm), 19-20.

[2] The translation of the term al-gharānīq is disputed. Some prefer ‘most exalted females’, while others specify ‘Numidian Cranes’. See an academic discussion on the incident in G. Hawting, The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp.131-137. See the work in the Almuslih Library here. (Ed.)

[3] Al-Ṭabarī (Ibn Jarīr) ), تاريخ الرسل والملوك  Ed. Muḥammad Abū al-Faḍl Ibrāhīm, Dār al-Maʽārif, Cairo, 2nd ed. 1960, Vol. 2, pp.338-340.

[4] For the text, see

[5] Al-Ṭabarī, ibid. The quotation is Qur’ān LIII (al-Najm), 19-22.

[6] Shaʽbān Muḥammad Ismāʽīl, Introduction to al-Naḥḥās, الناسخ والمنسوخ في القرآن الكريم , p.11.

[7] Abū Jaʽfar al-Naḥḥās, الناسخ والمنسوخ في القرآن الكريم ed. Shaban Muhammad Isma’il, Maktabat ‘Alam al-Fikr, Cairo, 1986, p.225.

[8] Shaʽbān Muḥammad Ismāʽīl, Introduction to al-Naḥḥās, الناسخ والمنسوخ في القرآن الكريم , p.13.

[9] Abū Jaʽfar al-Naḥḥās, op. cit. p.225. The passage is Qur’ān XVII (al-Isrāʽ) 74.

[10] Qur’ān XVII (al-Isrāʽ) 73-74.

[11] Qur’ān XXII (al-Ḥajj), 52.

[12] Abū Jaʽfar al-Naḥḥās, p.226.

[13] Qur’ān XVI (Al-Naḥl), 98-100.

[14] The author’s reference is to Qur’ān XXII (al-Ḥajj), 53: That He may make the suggestions thrown in by Satan, but a trial for those in whose hearts is a disease and who are hardened of heart: verily the wrong-doers are in a schism.

[15] Qur’ān XXIX (al-ʽAnkabūt), 61.

[16] Qur’ān XXIII (al-Mu’minūn), 87-87.

[17] Qur’ān XXII (al-Ḥajj), 53.

[18] The ‘Helpers’, members of the Banū Khazraj and Banū Aws at Madina who gave aid to the Prophet Muhammad after his flight from Mecca.

[19] Qur’ān XVI (al-Naḥl), 71. The full verse runs: And Allah hath favoured some of you above others in provision. Now those who are more favoured will by no means hand over their provision to those (slaves) whom their right hands possess, so that they may be equal with them in respect thereof. Is it then the grace of Allah that they deny?

[20] Qur’ān XVI (al-Naḥl), 75.

[21] Qur’ān VI (al-Anʽām), 165.

Main image: 2nd century AD relief from Hatra depicting the goddess al-Lāt flanked by two female figures, possibly the goddesses al-ʽUzza and Manāt. Iraq Museum.